Film industry pioneer Louis Aubert had absolute confidence in the good taste of the French filmgoing public, even if it might take them a few years to recognize the quality of a film. At least, that’s what he told parliament when the French government convened for two weeks in 1937 to find answers to the question, “Où va le cinéma français?” As his most instructive example, Aubert brought up Germaine Dulac’s 1923 film, La souriante Madame Beudet. When it first appeared in Paris, it didn’t have the least success. Then, a year or two later, Aubert booked the film once again in his vast cinema chain, and this time, “triumphantly.” For Aubert, this proved that the public, over time, can be educated to appreciate the best in cinema. As an exclamation point he added, “I am absolutely convinced.”
These 1937 hearings were fascinating, as well as self-pitying and self-congratulatory, brilliantly clear-minded and annoyingly dim. They brought together a who’s who of the film industry, including, in addition to Aubert, filmmakers Marcel L’Herbier and Raymond Bernard, actress and singer Véra Korène, and, to close the proceedings, none other than Louis Lumière himself. I’ll return to portions of this expert testimony in future posts, but for now I want to concentrate on Aubert and the case of Madame Beudet, to explore film exhibition, public taste, and the fluidity, at the time, between the avant-garde and the commercial cinemas.
If anyone should have known about public taste, it was Aubert. As one of the leaders of the Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert consortium, he helped oversee a vertically integrated—although typically debt-ridden–movie company that, along with Pathé, dominated French film exhibition. In Paris alone, there were about 25 Aubert cinemas throughout the 1930’s, and many more than that throughout France. Was he right, though, about Dulac’s film, and about its reception?
Madame Beudet was based on a play of the same name by Denys Amiel and André Obey and that would be a staple in Parisian theatres throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, far better known, it would seem, than the movie. The film opened in Paris in two cinemas at once in 1923, both on the Champs-Elysées, Le Colisee and the Elysée Palace, neither of which, at least as far as I can tell, belonging to the Aubert chain. That same week, in what must have been planned as a tie-in rather than just a coincidence, the play would be staged at the Odéon Theatre, in a rotation with Eugene O’Neil’s L’Empereur Jones (The Emperor Jones). This would not be the only time that the play and the film invoked each other in Paris.
The opening of the film caused some excitement. In its issue of 15 November 1923, the film journal Cinéa-Ciné Pour Tous, which appealed to serious cineastes as well as fans, and took Hollywood films and experimental cinema equally seriously, recommended a few new films. These included La Colère des Dieux (The Vermilion Pencil ), with Sessue Hayakawa, who had a large following in Paris, Ivan Mozzhukhin’s Le brasier ardent, which Cinéa claimed followed “in the path of Caligari,” Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle, and, La souriante Madame Beudet, which the magazine called “a model of cinegraphic intelligence,” even while refusing to credit Dulac. Also that week, the evening newspaper Paris-Soir led off its “Films of the Week” section with a very favorable review of Beudet, and giving that much space to a film that ran less than forty minutes indicated at least something of the movie’s significance.
After one week, Beudet moved on to two other cinemas, both of them in the Aubert chain although each one catering to very different clienteles: the Regina Aubert-Palace in the fashionable sixth arrondissement and the Paradis-Aubert-Palace in the primarily working-class twentieth. One week later, having left both of those cinemas, Beudet played at the Cinéma des Boulevards, which I have not been able to locate. One week after this, Dulac’s film apparently disappeared from Paris.
So far, Aubert seems to have been correct when he claimed that the film didn’t do particularly well when it opened, playing for around three weeks at various venues. His further assertion, though, that he brought the film back to his cinemas a few years later, this time to rousing success, is more difficult to confirm.
In some form or other, La souriante Madame Beudet had a steady presence in Paris. Theatre companies produced the play for years, and in 1925 Dulac, her film, and the play were used to defend French colonial power in North Africa. At a January 1926 benefit “Pour les blessés du Maroc” (the wounded of Morocco), Dulac gave a speech on “Le Théâtre et le Cinéma” that seems to have included some discussion of the film and was accompanied by scenes from the play. The beneficiaries of Dulac’s efforts had received their wounds in Morocco the previous April and May after France had joined Spain in putting down a Berber rebellion. A few years later, in May 1929, Radio Marseille P.T.T., which broadcast throughout France, presented a radio version of the play.
But at least in Paris, the film is hard to find. Beudet turned up now and again in the sixth arrondissement at the Vieux-Colombier, which specialized in the avant-garde, or at various ciné-clubs, where Dulac was a constant presence as speaker and curator. I have not been able to find, however, the return engagement that Aubert mentioned, either at his own cinemas or anyone else’s.
After it left Paris, the film does seem to have worked its way through France, and perhaps it was elsewhere in the country that the film earned the success that Aubert mentioned. Aubert himself, in 1937, remained vague about exactly where he had booked the film after its first run; we may assume he meant Paris, but that might not have been the case.
In March 1924, the film had gotten to Béthune in Northern France, near Lille, where it showed at the Cinéma des Familles, part of the nationwide Aubert chain. And here we have the complete bill for the cinema, from Les Spectacles, a newspaper that covered entertainment for the region. At the Cinéma des Familles Beudet showed with an Aubert-Journal newsreel, the ninth episode of the 1923 French serial Le diamant vert, the husband and wife team of Charles Krauss and Marise Dauvray in L’Ultime Roman, and Charley, Héros malgré lui, which may have been a reissue of a Charlie Chaplin short. The mix of films is an interesting one, and probably demonstrates that even outside of Paris the experimental might co-exist comfortably with the commercial and the formulaic during the 1920s.
A year later, in April 1925, L’Echo d’Alger, the daily newspaper in Algiers, spoke glowingly of both Dulac and Madame Beudet, when the former gave a talk on “Les arts contre le cinéma,” the arts against cinema, which might indicate that the film had played there, and had been duly appreciated.
Film records from the 1920s are sketchy at best, so it’s possible that there was a triumphant return of Madame Beudet to Paris, and to Aubert cinemas. Even if Aubert was wrong, though, in his testimony before parliament, there are things we can learn from the exhibition of Dulac’s film. First, it seems quite likely that the filmmaker had signed a distribution deal with Aubert, making for a seemingly odd combination of experimental feminist filmmaker and industrial capitalist. We might also get a sense of the place of the avant-garde in the city and elsewhere, at least to the extent that Beudet counts as a representative example. In Paris as well as other parts of France and France’s colonies, around Lille and in Algiers, and also in the daily newspapers and more specialized cinema journals, La souriante Madame Beudet and a potboiler like Le diamant vert might be viewed as both different and quite similar, with Aubert, at least, convinced that Dulac’s movie finally had been good for his company’s bottom line.